The downside to a celebrated and prolific scientific career is that you generate enough of a paper trail for something you concluded, somewhere, to be erroneous.
I happened on an amusing example this week while photographing the Caribbean turtle ants I blogged about earlier. Like most of the world’s 12,000 or so ant species, not much is known about the biology of Cephalotes varians. However, famed myrmecologist E. O. Wilson maintained a few lab colonies in the 1970′s and detailed his hours of meticulous observations in a paper entitled “A Social Ethogram of the Neotropical Arboreal Ant Zacryptocerus varians.” It remains the most comprehensive attempt to understand this unusual ant. In the abstract, he summarizes:
The species displays unusual and in one or two cases possibly even unique social behaviours, including the consumption and sharing of infrabuccal pellets, the apparent absence of adult transport, a primarily or exclusively mechanical form of colony defence, and a remarkable form of abdominal trophallaxis.
To that I say, Hey Wilson, chew on this!
Caught on camera, turtle ants lasciviously locked in transport!
Adult transport is among the more striking ant behaviors. A worker curls up into
fetal pupal position, allowing a nestmate to pick her up by the mandibles and carry her about. Many species are known to engage in adult transport (see here and here), and as the behavior is frequently observed during nest relocation the reason is thought to be related to communication- it’s easier for an ant that knows where a colony needs to move to simply pick up another ant and carry it rather than try to lead it or communicate the directions. A second function may be ergonomic. One ant carrying another expends less energy than two ants walking on their own.
As to why Ed Wilson’s colonies never performed the behavior under his watchful gaze, I can’t say.
The important thing is that Wilson was wrong, wrong, wrong and clearly can’t be trusted, his new novel Anthill will probably also be wrong, and I bet he’s been wrong about, um, other things.
We bloggers, of course, are always right.
source: Wilson, E.1976. A social ethogram of the neotropical arboreal ant Zacryptocerus varians (Fr. Smith). Animal Behaviour 24: 354-363.